Capstones as a high-impact practice are intended to provide students with the opportunity to integrate their learning across the undergraduate experience, often applying their knowledge to solve problems or ask questions while promoting student agency (Ketcham, Weaver, Moore, and Felten, forthcoming; CEL 2020). Capstones are often strategically positioned in the curriculum to prepare students for life after college as they transition to graduate school or a career. But are we considering what students bring to our campuses and creating pathways and pipelines that integrate and honor their experiences and expertise as well as position them to be changemakers in our communities, industries, and systems?  We are, and should be, asking a lot of capstones. If we are not intentionally messaging, developing, and integrating experiences that align with where students come from and where they are going, we risk it becoming just another box to check and lose the promise it is meant to be.

Boy in orange hat and clue shirt climbing up a train track with penstock pipes on either side. It is very steep and the town of Big Creek, CA is in the background.
Boy in orange hat and clue shirt climbing up a train track with penstock pipes on either side. It is very steep and the town of Big Creek, CA is in the background. Photo by Caroline Ketcham.

As a co-leader of the CEL Research Seminar on Capstone Experiences and a scholar with my eyes on access and equity, I have noted a few tensions and topics that continually sit in the backdrop or are moved to the backburner of discussions. More and more in the discussion and applications of capstones we collectively question who they are serving; who are the stakeholders? Communities, students, the institutional mission, faculty, disciplines, admissions, alumni—the who impacts pathways, pipelines, development, and implementation. Although the question makes the capstone experience messy, the opportunities opened when we consider all stakeholders is exciting. Many capstones have a community outreach component necessitating more intentional community base participatory research (CBPR) (NIMHD 2018) often leading to building sustained and prolonged partnership that center the community needs and expertise (Fontaine 2006). Faculty within their disciplines are balancing the agency of students conducting the capstone and the impact, both positive and negative, of their project. Hold this thought as I am certain we can be better at partnering with and within our communities.

Capstones could be leveraged to build strong pathways and better pipelines to support many stakeholders. In many capstone experiences, we are asking students to reach out and apply knowledge in a “real-world” setting. What we sometimes overlook is that our students are coming from and transitioning to these settings. They are coming from our local communities with food deserts and systemic poverty. They are coming from schools and classrooms where neurodiverse and LGBTQIA+ students were bullied and blamed. They are coming from experiences of race-based health disparities and excessive police force and brutality. The impact of our ingrained white, able-bodied systems has already impacted the experiences and reality of many of our students. Could capstone experiences be a place where our marginalized identity students could bring their “cultural wealth” (Yasso 2005)?  Where else in our curriculum could this cultural wealth be integrated into courses that build disciplinary knowledge and skill development, building strong pathways to capstones. Additionally, we could turn the focus of the capstone experience to creating pipelines to post-college opportunities that our communities and society need and that our students from diverse backgrounds now have the skills and knowledge to impact.  How do we support opportunities for students to work for positive change in their communities? How can we create avenues to industry jobs and graduate programs that don’t just elevate the “A” performing students? As our community and world need more representation of diversity across fields such as healthcare, industry, education – what do we need to do differently to our pipeline to elevate the students prepared to effect change.

It is also worth noting that success in academics and academia traditionally privileges student performance over process. Modalities used to assess student performance are end-point measures, typically a culminating public format for dissemination such as a research paper, presentation, thesis, etc. This assessment has always privileged students that do this academic performance well—and come from educated, upper-middle class families (e.g., Gross 2018; Lord et al. 2019). Thus, our pathways to and pipelines from capstones literally funnel the able, articulate, privileged, and connected to opportunities at the expense of the disabled, diverse, and non-traditional. It seems we could more strategically design our curriculum and position our capstones to connect students and communities in mutually beneficial ways.

Some possible ideas: building very process-oriented e-portfolios throughout the curriculum, designing research and projects that are at the intersections of discipline and community needs, utilizing a variety of writing genres throughout curriculum, putting students in opportunities where they work alongside potential employers, aligning partnerships where the interview is “non-traditional” and maybe even starts as temporary or probationary. We can challenge the norms of our disciplines. For example, Lord and colleagues (2019) studied the engineering curriculum across multiple institutions and when they considered sex and race in disaggregated data, they found that pathways and pipelines did not capture the success of students particularly from marginalized identities. They suggest the discipline begin to focus on ecosystems of the discipline instead of linear curricular structures. What a challenge—and imagine the transformational impact this would have. There are examples in industry where hiring neurodivergent individuals is a competitive advantage (Austin and Pisano 2017). It is important here to amplify that industry is not conducting favors or serving as heroes. They are rather changing their ecosystems to bring in the best talent for the job. Taking the time to train and onboard in ways that not only accommodate their needs but actually help the industry in the long run. A recent segment by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes ( highlighted the value autistic employees bring to companies. These opportunities often emerge from industry leaders who, as parent, family member, or friend of a disabled or neurodiverse person, see how few opportunities there are to enter the workforce differently. They are motivated to spend the time and effort to build a different pipeline, knowing the payoff for both the employer and employee are significant.

Academic and higher education institutions should be leaders in building these partnerships and opportunities, as our structure has these individuals in our system for years and should be able to identify, support, and amplify the unique skills and knowledge they bring to any table.


Austin, Robert D., and Gary P. Pisano. 2017. “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage: Why You Should Embrace It in Your Workforce.” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2017, 96-103.

CEL (Center for Engaged Learning). 2020. Elon Statement on Capstone Experiences.

Fontaine, Sherry J. 2006. “Integrating Community-Based Participatory Research into the Curriculum.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 11 (2): 45-56.

Gross, Miriam. 2018. “Power in Plain Sight: Exploring the Class Privilege at in Curriculum at Wealthy High Schools.” Master’s Projects and Capstones,  869.

Ketcham, Caroline J., Anthony G. Weaver, Jessie L. Moore, and Peter Felten. Forthcoming. “Living Up to the Capstone Promise: Improving Quality, Equity, and Outcomes in Culminating Experiences. In Promise of High Impact Practices, edited by John Zilvinskis, Jillian Kinzie, Jerry Daday, Ken O’Donnell, and Carleen Vande Zande. Stylus Publishing.

Lord, Susan M., Matthew W. Ohland, Richard A. Layton, and Michelle M. Camacho. 2019. “Beyond Pipeline and Pathways: Ecosystem Metrics.” Journal of Engineering Education 108, 32-56.

NIMHD (National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. 2018. “Community-Based Participatory Research Program (CBPR).”

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education 8 (1): 69-91.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. (2021, October 6). Inclusive Capstone Experiences, Pathways, and Pipelines [Blog Post]. Retrieved from